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Forgiveness and understanding in South Africa

Nez Perce woman meets Archbishop Desmond Tutu at conference

SPOKANE, Wash. - The Nez Perce Reservation and South Africa are thousands of miles apart, but share some of the same problems and concerns. A recent international conference entitled ''Memory, Narrative and Forgiveness: Reflecting on 10 Years of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission,'' was hosted by the University of Cape Town and brought people together from throughout the world with the common concern of forgiving past sins and finding healing. Roberta Lynn Tew-le-kit-we-son-my Paul, from the Nez Perce Tribe, was one of the presenters. ''It was a life-changing experience,'' she commented.

Paul is finalizing her doctorate degree from Gonzaga University in Spokane. Her dissertation is ''Historical Trauma and its Effects on a Nimiipuu Family - Finding Story, Healing Wounds.'' It's the story of five generations of her family; the changes, heartache and tragedy that occurred; and her own struggle to find healing through reflection and forgiving. That subject fit well with the conference; and after submitting an abstract and waiting six weeks, she was notified they wanted her to come and present her story.

''When I first heard who the keynote speaker would be and other notables, I was feeling, 'Hmmm, do I even belong here, a little girl from the reservation at this big international conference and what do I have to say?''' she laughed.

Paul traveled to Cape Town with her sister, Jackie Inglis, and niece, Suzanne Gebhards. The trio wore their regalia during the conference and received the usual reaction of people wanting to know who they were. ''We had to explain Native American Indians, not those from India. They wanted to know what it all meant and I explained I wore my regalia out of respect and representing the tribe and the need to be respectful, one government to another, one people to another. I felt it was also important to wear the regalia to show who we are and also that reclaiming of culture was very important in the healing process.''

''When I presented my topic of historical trauma and its effects on a Nimiipuu [Nez Perce] family, I had to cover 200 years of history in 15 minutes, so it's a very condensed version. But I was able to get some points across, like after going through a divorce and trying to take my life and then realizing that I have a purpose in life. My grandfather spoke to me that night - he'd passed away several years earlier - and said, 'You need to go home and heal.'

''Understanding the cycles of grief and depression and then letting those cycles go, you need to know your story to let go of your depression and confront it.''

The keynote speaker was a two-time nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, but the conference headliner was Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was honored for his many years of leadership in bringing peace, humanity and compassionate leadership to South Africa and also in honor of his 75th birthday.

Paul had read Tutu's book, ''There's No Future Without Forgiveness'': ''It inspired me and confirmed for me that we must have forgiveness within ourselves to move forward, on both sides, whether you're the perpetrator or the victim.''

''I had a dream I would meet him, and that dream was very persistent.''

In anticipation of having the opportunity to meet the archbishop, Paul had several gifts made for him and his wife, Leah Nomalizo Tutu, including a beaded bolo tie of a white-tailed buck for him and a beaded medallion for her that featured a huckleberry basket. ''I also gave him a beaded cross that had the medicine wheel around it, plus a few other things.'' The beaded items were created by Raynel Olney Begay, with ancestry from the Yakama and Shoshone tribes.

Paul was able to have a private meeting with Tutu; she was one of a few people afforded that opportunity. ''He is very charming, very humble, with a very good sense of humor. He has a perpetual smile on his face. He was very attentive and looks you right in the eye. When I explained the gifts, he was really listening and looking. I just wanted to honor him and thank him, and I invited him to come to our country, to the Nez Perce.

''It was really helpful to be there and hear other thinking, and how you could learn from each other and share in the hope. One person was a minister from Canada who heads the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They are going to start listening to the residential boarding schools and I'm wondering if the U.S. is anywhere near that. I'd like to see how that could happen. It's a very large wound among our people and we need to help that heal. That may be one of my next passions!

''Another group was working with the Trail of Tears of the Cherokee, and I said, 'Did you know the Nez Perce have a trail, too?' Maybe we need to do the Nez Perce Trail. There are people wanting to do reconciliations, who want to make amends and not just say, 'I'm sorry.'

''We are not the only ones who have suffered. There are many others. I still believe that as we share our stories across continents we can heal as a humanity, and this was a process of hearing each others stories.''